Not the time for Brad Wall to play western alienation card

BY TREVOR MCLEOD

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall stoked the fires of western alienation when he suggested this week that equalization dollars should be sent to Ontario and Quebec in a pipeline.

Make no mistake, these comments struck a deep chord in the west. After all, the western Canadian identity was forged in the concept of western alienation – the idea that Canada’s four western provinces have been excluded from the affairs of mainstream Canadian politics to the benefit of Ontario and Quebec.

Wall’s argument hits the mark on so many points.

First, he was right to remind us that western Canadian provinces should not rush to take economic advice from jurisdictions like Ontario and Quebec, which have not found a way themselves to maintain global competitiveness while occupying the moral high ground. More appreciation of the west’s contribution and less moralizing would be a welcome change.

Second, Ontario and Quebec (and, for that matter, British Columbia) should not be hijacking the federation by placing conditions on the development of oil sands and pipelines. Natural resources are squarely within provincial jurisdiction and the production and transportation of such goods should not be derailed by those seeking economic concessions (or more wealth transfer). Accepting this highway robbery could literally destroy Canada as a trading nation.

Third, provinces do not have the constitutional authority to stop pipelines. The decision is fully within the federal government’s purview. However, as Wall knows, politics matter (especially with a federal election approaching). It was politics that allowed Wall to prevent the BHP Billiton takeover of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan in 2010. In fairness, Wall acknowledged that this was a federal decision and at no point suggested Saskatchewan would not comply with the decision if it had gone against him.

It is easy for Wall – a true statesman with a deft populist touch – to stoke the fires of western alienation at a time when western Canadian economic interests seem to be under siege by central Canada. However, it would be wrong to suggest that western Canada’s interests will not be well–served by thoughtful action to address climate change.

The story is now well understood. Oil producers in western Canada lack meaningful access to global markets. They are forced to sell into the North American market at a significant discount to global prices. This reduces investment, royalties and taxes that would provide public goods, like education and healthcare to all Canadians.

The desire to block access is motivated, in large part, by the belief that Canada has been inactive on climate change. Yes, Alberta and Saskatchewan have taken some steps to address climate change. Yes, they have focused on technological solutions like carbon capture and storage (which could be used in countries like China and India where the real global emissions battle will be waged). But, in a Canadian context, Alberta and Saskatchewan account for nearly half of GHG emissions – and each province has a responsibility to do more.

But, let’s not fall into the trap of this being a zero-sum game. Pricing carbon in western Canada does not need to result in a large wealth transfer to central Canada. This is part of the benefit of provinces developing their own systems – as opposed to Ottawa imposing a one-size-fits-all system. A well-designed system can also protect trade exposed industries and make sure we are not simply exporting emissions to jurisdictions with less stringent (or non–existent) environmental policies. And, yes, an agreement between provinces on climate may clear the political barriers that are halting pipelines.

As our premiers seek agreement on a path forward on energy and the environment in St. John’s this week, they would do well to remember that the interests of Canadians are aligned on this issue. There is a time to stoke the fires of western alienation. This is not it.

Now is the time to demonstrate that provinces are capable of working together to advance Canadian interests. If provinces want to lead, they should do so.

Trevor McLeod is the Director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy at the Canada West Foundation. His column is distributed through Troy Media.

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